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LU College of Engineering and Lumberton ISD Partner on Mission to Space

Lamar University and Lumberton ISD have partnered to send a science experiment on a mission to the
Mission to Space
Nicholas Brake, Austin Havard and Lucus Mason
International Space Station.

In the fall of 2019, Lumberton ISD enlisted its students to participate in the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program through the non-profit organization, The National Center for Earth and Space Science Education.

“I saw this opportunity for our students to participate in a real-world science experiment and proposed we get involved,” said Susan Letourneau, a chemical engineer and STEM teacher at Lumberton High School. “I just wanted more of our students to get excited about STEM fields and thought this was a great chance for them to get some practical application of science.” 

The program challenges students, grades 6-12, to propose a science experiment to be performed in space. More than 375 Lumberton ISD students met the challenge and submitted science experiments for consideration.

With so many participants in the program, Lumberton ISD recruited Lamar University to choose finalists to send to the program’s national review board, which reviews proposals from the U.S., Brazil and Canada.  

LU convened a panel of university professors and science educators including James Henry, assistant professor, chemical engineering; Kelley Bradley, assistant professor, industrial engineering and director of the makerspace; Ken Aung, professor, mechanical engineering; Chun-Wei Yao, assistant professor, mechanical engineering; and Divine Sebastian, doctoral student, mechanical engineering. The panel chose three finalists for national review.

In December, Student Spaceflight Experiments Program announced 34 winning scientific experiments including one from Lumberton ISD. Out of several hundred experiments proposed, Austin Havard and Lucas Mason’s experiment seeking to strengthen concrete in space was selected.

In a no-gravity environment, concrete is weaker than on Earth and therefore not a material that can be used to build structures. The young scientists proposed adding polyvinyl alcohol fibers to the concrete to strengthen it.

“We hope the fibers will reduce porosity and that we’ll have a material that is viable for structures in space on Mars, or even on the Moon (That’s a bit closer.) This is something they want to do in the coming years,” said Havard, who aspires to be an industrial or mechanical engineer.

To help them prepare for the experiment in space, Havard and Mason reached out to LU’s Nicholas Brake, associate professor of industrial engineering. At the students’ request, Brake agreed to be their project mentor.

“I got involved out of my own curiosity, but I think it’s important for Lamar University to engage with local high school kids and high school faculty, show them all the cool stuff we have, and showcase our great engineering program,” said Brake. “So, we’re involved for recruiting, outreach and fundamentally for science. I’m excited to work with the students and hopefully we’ll get some good data.”

Working with Brake, Havard and Mason are preparing a sample that will stay on Earth and one that will go into space. They’ll perform experiments on both samples prior to the space flight. They’ll also perform experiments on the sample on Earth that the astronauts perform on the sample in space. When the sample comes back from space, the team of no-gravity scientists will do tests again. All of the data will be collected and compared to determine what’s different about gravity and no gravity.

“Getting to be involved in an experiment that’s more than just a lab that you do at school; it’s something that has applications and that we can actually find out new data that hasn’t been discovered before - that’s really interesting,” said Mason, who was thinking about studying business in college before this project. “I was considering business and economics but working with this experiment shifted my thinking to industrial engineering.”

Ultimately the project will determine whether or not fiber reinforced systems can be deployed in a way similar to how they are deployed on Earth.

“If the samples come back in good form, it could provide us with some good insight on how cement binds with fibers in space,” said Brake, who admits that he “loves” concrete and is thrilled to be involved in a project using concrete out of the Earth’s atmosphere. “Most of the high-performance fiber mixes we use on Earth involve some form of cement, fine sand and fiber. If we cannot successfully use fibers in space, due to workability and mixing issues, then we are going to have to rethink our ambitions; at least with regards to using l high-performance fiber reinforced systems; so we will have to  come up with some alternatives.”

Lumberton ISD will host a “Mission to Space Community Celebration,” on Feb. 13. The top ten experiments will be on display. Additionally, 20 mission patches that Lumberton ISD elementary and secondary students designed will also be on display. Two of these patches will be selected to fly with Havard and Mason’s project to the ISS.

The Student Spaceflight Experiments Program (SSEP) is a program of the National Center for Earth and Space Science Education (NCESSE) in the U.S. and the Arthur C. Clarke Institute for Space Education Internationally. It is enabled through a strategic partnership with DreamUp PBC and NanoRacks, LLC, working with NASA under a Space Act Agreement as part of the utilization of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory.